Hub of Historic District Rises From the Ashes

By Don Cuddy
Standard Times staff writer

NEW BEDFORD — Ten years ago, a fire raged through the historic Corson Building, causing the roof to cave in and leaving little more than charred beams and shattered glass.
On the morning after the September 1997 blaze, the structure was a blackened shell in danger of collapse, its future anything but certain.
Yet, thanks to a sustained effort over the past decade, the William Street building will soon begin a new chapter in its long history, rising from the ashes to serve as an interpretive and educational space for the National Park Service.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., will be among the dignitaries on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, set for 3 p.m. May 16.
“This project really started the day after the fire when the Waterfront Historic Area League put up the money to stabilize it so it wouldn’t be condemned. If it was torn down, there would have been this gaping hole right in the middle of the historic district,” said Celeste Bernardo, Whaling National Historical Park superintendent.
The long-awaited park had become a reality less than a year before the fire, opening in November 1996.
Originally two separate buildings, dating from 1875 and 1884 and both owned by Temple S. Corson, who made his money in coal and shipping, the building had many uses over the years. It last housed the Piva family’s popular Moby Dick gift shop, which featured nautical specialties and bric-a-brac.
After the fire, the Pivas donated the building to WHALE, which, in April 2004, passed it along to the Park Service. The National Park had been looking for more public meeting space within the park’s boundaries, and the restoration project began with the planning and design phase.
Construction has been under way for the past 18 months. It started with the erection of a structural steel frame within the building — the massive beams arrived in the city on seven trailers and were hoisted into place with a 60-ton crane.
The original brick exterior now features historically accurate windows and reconstructed storefronts, one of which will be occupied once again by the Pivas’ Moby Dick store.
Located next to the park’s visitor center, the three-story building has a large exhibition space and a 55-seat theater on the ground floor. The featured displays include an illustration of the global reach of the New Bedford whaling industry. A map of the world, 14 feet wide, includes 50 of the ports most frequented by New Bedford whaling vessels, while a huge wall map depicts the city and its wharves as they appeared in 1876.
Considerable exhibition space is also devoted to the successful restoration of the city’s historic district with illustrations of the many buildings that have been saved.
“It speaks to the vision preservationists have of what can be,” Ms. Bernardo said, pointing as an example to a picture taken in the 1970s of a dilapidated Rodman Candleworks building, which now houses the popular Candleworks restaurant.
“If you saw that building, you would think that no one in their right mind would want to save it. But look at it now. People forget that, since the late ’50s, New Bedford has been a leader nationally in historic preservation. We are one of the first national historic landmark districts in the country.”
The second floor of the renovated building will be used for public and educational programming and the third floor to provide office space for park staff. Park officials say that the $6 million restoration project, wholly funded by the park service, should be celebrated by all city residents.
“We want the community to come,” Jennifer Gonsalves, chief of visitor services, said. “We’ve had firemen coming by already for a peek and they can’t believe the building. We want the local contractors to come to see the fruits of their labor. This is a real celebration.”
Contact Don Cuddy at
April 23, 2008
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